I’ve walked the path in the daytime through most of the thick autumn woods. I know where the lake is, where the tree branches and trunks have fallen down and become a spindly mess in the ravine below, where the rock face begins, where the wild turkeys congregate, and where the deer like to graze. I feel confident about these woods during my vacation, perhaps because I've enjoyed them with the safe cabin to retreat to.
Tonight, however, I want to experience the darkness and have something of substance to write about in my horror novel involving the woods in autumn and nighttime.
It is a full moon, so I step outside the cabin and walk out into the roadway where I am away from the trees and can see the giant bloated moon dragging low in the skyline and lighting up the trees along the street in a faint blue light. It strangely emboldens me to listen to absolute silence, study the unflinching moon, and peer at the mysterious matted woods around me knowing that I will be descending within and not taking the enormous light with me.
In fact, I do not take a flashlight either.
I step down into the pathway where the last of the moonlight reaches. The air inside the tall trees and thick shrubs is chilly and wet. There are no crickets or tree frogs on this brisk evening, no enchanting lightning bugs; the season has passed. There is only the occasional hollow echo of an acorn dropping and bouncing off the trees on its way to the mulch-covered earth.
It smells of molding damp leaves, mushrooms and black rich earth, pine oils and a lingering sweet hint of rotted blackberries on the vines. I inhale deeply and allowed my eyes to try to adjust. But, adjust to what? I know the path takes me directly down a quarter mile to an abandoned cemetery, but even the path is completely without definition in the nighttime.
I stumble over a tree root exposed in the rich earth and curse at it. Slowing down from a suburban existence is tough. I am without any distractions, light, sound, or company. With this realization, I cross between being human to being part of the woods, a nighttime creature, perhaps a lycanthrope of undetermined threat.
My passage is slow, my hands in front of me to feel the large tree trunks that line the path. I am slapped by nondescript bushes and my sweater is caught by a flapping berry bramble. It extracts blood in payment as I tear away from it in frustration, only to tumble off the path and become disoriented.
Which way is in? Which way is out?
I could very well go deeper into the woods, off the pathway, lost for the night on the mountaintop. How would I explain that to my sister in the morning when she came to my cabin to find me gone and bring a search party to embarrassingly help the “city girl” be extracted from a part of the woods that could have been yards from someone’s property but I had no clue in the darkness; without a flashlight.
I used to frolic in the woods naked as a child. I would play in the creek and refuse to dress until it was time to hike back out. There in my pagan world, I was allowed to be comfortable and honest and true in my skin.
Tonight, I feel the same desire to shed my clothing and become one with the forest, stalking the pathways with a keener nightvision, a heightened sense of smell and hearing while the sense of vision is blunted. Perhaps, in the chilly wet air, my body will feel bracingly alive and also desperate to survive. I will rush wildly and leap over fallen limbs, studying my new wild home for intruders and scaring them from the premises so that it remains my own personal playground.
I do remove my sweater. I am perpetually hot and like the feeling of cool air and the bracing alive sensation it brings. I tie it around my waist and make out the distant moonlight to know that I am turned backwards on the path. I face away from the light and go at a steady downhill pace, learning to see bits of light filtering through the canopy above to give me at least a sense of depth to my environment.
I am making gains as I begin up another hillside, but I stop for just a moment. Beyond the rare plinking of falling acorns, I hear the rustle of a distant bush. Then, the ground reverberates with a heavy footfall. I may live in the suburbs now, but I am a country girl at heart. I know my deer and smaller creatures.
This is neither. It is one single footfall of a good weight. It stops. And the bushes quiet.
Now, goosebumps crop up on my bare arms. I sense something watching me. I know the feeling well. It has never steered me wrong. I stare off into the direction from which the sounds came in search of the reflective glow of eyes.
If I were to get frightened and run now, I would likely run off a granite shelving or straight into a large oak tree. I must keep my wits about me. I am too far into the woods to give up my goal; the graveyard.
I know it is just at the top of the next hill, so I continue my upward climb, occasionally adjusting my footing for the uneven ground, unexpected rocks, and crosshatching of roots. My foot slips on wet leaves and I fall to my knees.
Then, I hear it again, three distinct heavy and purposeful footfalls, moving parallel from me and only perhaps 10 yards away. I get up, brush off my jeans and move forward. I run directly into the wooden post from the lopsided cemetery’s fencing. I put my hands down on it and skirt around into the family graveyard where the trees overhead part just enough to let in some light. The dozen headstones are glowing and pale, brown leaves littering the ground around atop of them. I imagine the fertility of the land with the family and the yearly dropping of leaves and debris enriching the soil more and more with each passing year. I sit down on a post and study my surroundings, relieved to bask in a trace of gray light.
Then, I turn and study the pathway from which I entered, knowing I will be going back into the blackest of black woods and whatever was tracking me, a creature that no doubt came out at night and was gifted with a vision I didn’t possess.
It could see me, but I could not see it!
I take a leisurely and perhaps loitering walk around the headstones, secretly hoping whatever is in the woods has moved on and become bored with stalking the human.
Finally, I move on to the path, amazed at how the milky pale light disappeared into complete and utter opaque ebony. The moon had shifted just enough to offer no overhead drips of light. I stop to adjust my vision as I step down a slick footing of granite and rotted leaves. Stabilizing my balance, I move onto the soft leaf-covered earth and find my downhill bearings off. I slip, then overcompensate, then fall right into a tree.
I hold onto the tree for a moment, my cheek pressed to its deep ridges and inhale the familiar and comforting scent as if hugging a beloved mother.
Trees have always been my protectors and my parents. As a child, when I entered the woods, the silent sentinels kept me safe and in line, giving me landmarks to make my way through the labyrinth of trails surrounding my property.
I don’t want to let this one go. It means going back out into the abyss where I swear that any moment my foot will go over a ledge and I will fall into eternity without a trace. Even though I know there are no cliffs in this area, once the image is in my head, I cannot shake it.
I stop and take a deep breath, step away from the tree and look into the lightless void and realize that, at this moment, I have no definition, I am part of the ecosystem. I am neither detectable or with label. I am nothing and everything at once.
Pagan beliefs run deep in my veins, part of my Nordic and Celtic genes. I realize that I am this forest and this forest is me.
I trudge on with the assurance that I have walked this path earlier and I know that it contains no cliffs or unexpected traps. My eyes are able to make out a faint tree trunk from a single shaft of moonlight and I know that the next hill is coming and I am now in the ravine.
It is in that ravine when I hear it again. It is to my right this time. Perhaps only 10 or 15 yards away. I have taken two steps, it has taken two steps. Only, its steps are heavier and more sure footed. A twig snaps. A sapling ricochets, making a whip-like sound. No deer walks on heavy feet. No deer snaps back saplings.
This time, I take several fast steps, but blunder as I can’t help but watch to the right of me and run right into a briar bramble. Now, the thorns are sticking into my thighs and hands and there are no accompanying footfalls. Cursing, I yank myself free and step back onto the path only to hear the footfalls again.
I hear five or six heavy lumbering footsteps perhaps 30 feet away to my right, following my direction, perhaps closer than before.
It’s parallel still, but if it’s coming in towards my path bit by bit and eventually we will converge in the same spot. It reminds me of the riptides in the Chesapeake and swimming parallel with the shoreline, cutting in a little bit closer with each stroke until you find yourself way down the beach by the time you get out of it. Only, this time the beach will hold not safety but instead some unknown creature.
It hasn’t shown a tendency to run, so I consider that option, only now I’m headed uphill to the final frontier of my trek and not only is it stupid to run up the granite covered slippery leaf encrusted hillside, but I have no vision at this point. In fact, I’m still too far to see the bit of light at the opening of the path that gives away the moonlight.
What the hell, why not?
In my ever stupid way of running like a gazelle with my long legs springing in front of me way too high to be anything but ridiculous, I vault myself over a ledge of granite and dash forward, knees pumping up high, strides long and sure. I get in 10, maybe 12 wide strides before I nearly do the splits on the wet leaves beneath me. I fall to the ground and listen past the heavy sound of my breathing.
It’s moving faster now thrashing the bushes around it, sending acorns down to their final resting place in the loam. I’m completely out of shape at running and this altitude, and my desperate breathing is noisily giving away my location. Whatever it is, took a good dozen or more steps which must have been huge because it was definitely still parallel but much further in the direction I am going. It is now ahead of me.
“I’m not scared of you, you stupid redneck!” I yell this and then think better of it.
Sometimes, my ability to self-edit is seriously lacking, especially if I feel threatened. I’m in the hills of West Virginia and truly the only thing on two legs in these woods has to be man, but what kind of man? Who walks the woods without a flashlight, tormenting a woman on a hike? And one with such heavy footfalls?
Perhaps someone who is more at home here than I am?
The movie “Wrong Turn” comes to mind and my heart pounds furiously. I really have no plan of escape. There is only one path out of the woods. If I remain any longer, I allow whoever it is time to intercept me, so I get up and move on, steadily but cautiously. The last thing I need to do is break my leg and be more helpless than I already am.
We’re tracking each other simultaneously now and it's the oddest thing. It’s actually beginning to feel comforting to hear him walk as I walk. At least I’m not totally alone. If he meant me any harm, wouldn’t he have approached me on the path instead of cutting through the thicket? In a strange sort of way, he's escorting me home.
I can see it now, at the brim of the hill, the bit of gray light from the moon. I am so close to the cabin, I can feel a tendril of fresh air cutting the soggy frigid air. Or, perhaps I am only imaging it because it just seems to be materializing in answer to a silent prayer like some kind of lunar savior. The scent of cabin woodsmoke gives me relief.
I stop to test my stalker. And, he stops too.
Not only do deer shuffle away or leap out of sight when someone is near, but they do not track humans in the woods and mimic their steps. Whatever it is, he’s a heavy son-of-a-bitch and his footfalls make the ground seem to rumble a bit beneath my feet. He is sure footed in the darkness showing that he has no problem navigating his obstacles.
He definitely has one up on me.
I don’t want to let the dark thoughts in, but sometimes in a moment of panic I am fascinated by letting in my worst fear. So, I open the door in my mind and envision Bigfoot. A face-to-face encounter with a primeval terror few ever face. Now, that it’s Bigfoot in my mind, I am racing towards the moonlight, sure that he will reach out with one long hairy arm and use his giant paw to just swat me to the ground, as he is definitely not 20 feet away from me and heading toward my sacred path.
Perhaps only 30 feet to the moonlight and I regain my dignity. I will not run from the woods. I will not act like a city person petrified of wildlife. I’ve been in the woods my whole life and they are my friend. I straighten myself up, take care to put my sweater back on as the nip in the air is no longer refreshing but is downright icy.
The last dozen feet I stroll casually and proudly. Of course, that’s easy for me to do, the moonlight is beginning to cast itself on my chilly body and everything I feared, I left behind me in the darkness.
(Note: This is one of several alone-in-a-scary-place stories I included in my huge horror short story anthology book "Don't Go There! A Flash Horror Anthology" that includes dozens and dozens of short stories timed so you know how long they take to read and include everything from gnomes to cave dwellers, vampires to ghosts, werewolves to zombies and more!)